The Long, Expensive History of Defense Rip-Offs

A timeline of more than 230 years of military waste, from gouging George Washington to ditching $7 billion worth of stuff Afghanistan.

It didn’t start with the F-35 or even the $640 toilet seat. Military overruns and rip-offs have a long (and expensive) history, starting in the earliest days of the republic:


General George Washington decries the suppliers overcharging his army: “It is enough to make one curse their own Species, for possessing so little virtue & patriotism.”

George Washington Wikipedia


The Navy’s first order for frigates faces shipyard delays, and its cost shoots up to more than $1.1 million.

USS Constitution Wikipedia


A House committee exposes fraud, favoritism, and profiteering in Civil War contracting. Its findings, writes the New York Times, “produce a feeling of public indignation which would justify the most summary measures against the knaves whose villainy is here dragged into daylight.”


“Investigator Truman” Time/Wikimedia Commons

Sen. Harry S. Truman kicks off a dogged investigation of wasteful war production. The Truman Committee, which runs into World War II, is credited with saving as much as $15 billion (more than $230 billion in today’s dollars).


Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire calls out the Pentagon for maintaining 300 golf courses around the world. (Today it has 200.)

Golfing at a DoD course US Department of Defense


President Ronald Reagan announces the Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. “Star Wars,” a system of ground- and space-based lasers that will stop incoming nuclear missiles. Still unrealized, the program has cost more than $209 billion.

President Ronald ReaganThe Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library


Pentagon profligacy makes headlines with reports of $640 toilet seats, $660 ashtrays, $7,600 coffee-makers, and $74,000 ladders. “Our attack on waste and fraud in procurement—like discovering that $436 hammer—is going to continue,” Reagan says, “but we must have adequate military appropriations.”


No-bid Pentagon contracts explode after 9/11, jumping from $50 billion in 2001 to $140 billion in 2010.


Halliburton subsidiary KBR takes over a contract to feed soldiers in Iraq. It raises the price of a meal from $3 to $5 while subcontracting the services back to the previous contractor.


F-22s Wikimedia Commons

After safety problems and cost overruns, the Pentagon cancels the F-22 Raptor fighter jet (estimated price tag: $412 million per plane) and puts the money toward buying F-35s.


The Government Accountability Office finds that the Defense Logistics Agency is sitting on $7.1 billion worth of excess spare parts.


An anonymous congressional earmark sets aside $2.5 billion for 10 C-17 aircraft the Air Force says it does not need.


Boeing charges the Army $1,678 apiece for rubber cargo-loading rollers that actually cost $7 each.


One-quarter of the $1.6 trillion being spent on major weapons systems comes from unexpected cost overruns.


The Air Force scraps a new logistics management system that has shown “negligible” results—after spending $1 billion on it.


Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) slams $68 billion in frivolous Pentagon spending: “Using defense dollars to run microbreweries, study Twitter slang, create beef jerky, or examine Star Trek does nothing to defend our nation.”

The Starship Enterprise Paramount


The House oversight committee finds that the Swiss contractor that fed troops in Afghanistan was overpaid by $757 million. The company claims it’s still owed $1 billion.


The military and VA are found to have spent $1.3 billion on a failed health records system for vets. That’s after the Pentagon already spent $2 billion on an unsuccessful upgrade of its electronic medical records system.


The Army announces plans to replace its camouflage pattern, which was introduced in 2004 and cost $5 billion to develop. The new one will cost $4 billion.

US Army uniforms Wikipedia


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) decries the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as “one of the great national scandals that we have ever had, as far as the expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars are concerned.”


The Pentagon plans to scrap more than 85,000 tons of equipment in Afghanistan, part of $7 billion worth of gear being left behind as the troops come home.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend